ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. In February 1959, the great illustrator and magazine artist Norman Rockwell was on Edward R. Murrow's celebrity interview show, "Person to Person." In fact, he was the opener, the warm-up to Murrow's interview with the recently victorious Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
For decades, Rockwell had painted scenes that told stories of wholesome, G-rated life in small-town America. Murrow and "Person to Person's" camera found the Rockwell family at their home in just such a small town, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
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SIEGEL: What Norman Rockwell did not say was that Stockbridge was their home because it was also home to the psychiatric institute where his wife, Mary, who was depressive and alcoholic, had found treatment; nor did he say that at the same institute he had entered therapy several years earlier with a psychoanalyst who went on to great renown.
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SIEGEL: Erik Erikson gave us the concept of the identity crisis, of life as a multi-staged process of social development. He was a German Jewish refugee who went on to write "Childhood and Society" and "Young Man Luther." The relationship between famous patient and renowned psychologist figures in Deborah Solomon's new biography "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell." And Deborah Solomon, I should say it first, that there's a lot more to your book than Rockwell's therapy with Erikson. But I just find it unusually striking and worth dwelling on for a few minutes. OK?
DEBORAH SOLOMON: Absolutely.
SIEGEL: First of all, why did Norman Rockwell go into therapy?
SOLOMON: Well, I think he was thrilled to find Erikson after a lifetime of depression and anxiety and very severe insecurity. Erikson was a fabulous listener, and their time together wasn't really psychoanalysis so much as counseling and support. Erikson was a great supporter of Rockwell, and Rockwell needed that.
SIEGEL: Now he had been introduced to the psychiatric center in Stockbridge because his wife had been treated there. And you write at one point that those wonderful Kellogg's Corn Flake advertisements, which he painted with kids bursting with joy 'cause they had their corn flakes in front of them, these were bill-payers. These were ways in which Norman Rockwell made enough money to pay his wife's psychiatric bills.
SOLOMON: And his own. He ran up enormous psychiatric bills in the '50s for himself, his wife and his three sons, all of whom were treated at Austen Riggs at various points.
SIEGEL: Austen Riggs being the psychiatric institute that was a very liberal, open psychoanalytic place.
SOLOMON: Right. An open wards place. But what's interesting is that Stockbridge is known as a quintessential New England town, with tranquil pastures and gazing cows. And in the '50s, it really was a center of psychoanalysis and Rockwell moved there, not for the peaceful countryside, but to be treated.
SIEGEL: Yeah, he could've told Murrow. I guess it would've been odd in '59, and say, I'm here for the shrink.
SIEGEL: But it wouldn't have been a normal "Person to Person." Norman Rockwell painted an idealized America where a young boy's anxiety might be the vaccination he's about to receive from the doctor whose back is turned. Or the runaway kid is a young, sort of comical runaway who doesn't get out of town and sits down with the friendly local policeman.
He didn't paint his own childhood. His own childhood was a lot worse than that, wasn't it?
SOLOMON: Yes. I think he painted a view of America as a caring, concerned place. No. He certainly was not painting his own reality, but he was painting, I think, his longing.
SIEGEL: The family that he grew up in, he regarded his mother, he regarded her as a chronic hypochondriac, I gather. His older brother was the robust, athletic, popular kid, as opposed to skinny Norman. And his father is described as a drudge who, you know, is surviving, taking the train to and from work every day.
SOLOMON: Yeah. I think Rockwell experienced himself as sort of the classic younger brother picked upon and bullied, and art for him, of course, became a way to bulk himself up from what he saw as the very competitive world of male adolescence.
SIEGEL: He entered therapy with Erik Erikson pretty late in adulthood. I think he's about 60, right, when...
SOLOMON: That's correct.
SIEGEL: How important would you say Erikson's opinions were to him and his judgments were to Rockwell?
SOLOMON: I think Erikson played a large role in Rockwell's work and helped push him towards the civil rights paintings that Rockwell did in the 1960s. Through Erikson, Rockwell was able to connect with liberal politics and his subject matter showed it. When he painted the "Golden Rule," for instance, in 1959, he tried for what we now call multiculturalism, meaning bringing people from all different ethnicities and religions together.
SIEGEL: This is actually the large piece that - there's a mosaic of it at the United Nations.
SOLOMON: Exactly. There's a mosaic copy of it at the U.N., "The Golden Rule." The central figure is a rabbi who I see as a stand-in for Erik Erikson, who was the closest thing that Rockwell ever had to a spiritual leader.
SIEGEL: Rockwell was, first of all, a very gifted draftsman, and I gather in terms of the craft of painting, he was very successful commercially and he was a representational artist in the heyday of abstract art, all of which subjected him to criticism now and again that he was an artistic lightweight, that he was an unserious painter.
SOLOMON: Right. He was seen as a toxic culture polluter, a nonentity, of course, to art historians.
SIEGEL: But I come away from reading your book, though, that other people were very concerned about this. Either he was very tightly wrapped and didn't admit - or only admitted it to Erikson in therapy or else he - it rolled off him somehow. It didn't bother him.
SOLOMON: I think that he wanted to work in the tradition of illustration. He loved illustration for its own sake, and it was very painful for him not to be acknowledged as a gifted artist. But he was committed to illustration. Now, of course, we understand that realist painting can be as emotional as an abstract painting. But during his lifetime, many people suffered from the illusion that abstract painting was somehow more emotional just because it included drips and splashes and wide strokes.
SIEGEL: It's interesting when you speak of the contrast between what Rockwell was doing and what Jackson Pollock was doing. Rockwell has a painting called "The Connoisseur," in which we see a balding, middle-aged man from the back looking at a Jackson Pollock. And to make that painting, Norman Rockwell had to do his own version of a Jackson Pollock, and it's not bad.
SOLOMON: No, it's very good. He had to fastidiously recreate a Jackson Pollack.
SIEGEL: Was it Willem de Kooning who looked at this painting and said, boy, that's really - he really has Pollock down there?
SOLOMON: No, he looked - he saw the painting in a gallery, he saw Rockwell's "Connoisseur," and he said to the owner of the gallery: That painting is better than anything Jackson could do.
SIEGEL: That was Willem de Kooning said that.
SOLOMON: Willem de Kooning said that. But I'm not sure if he intended the comment as a compliment to Rockwell or a takedown of Pollock.
SIEGEL: Of Jackson Pollock, I see.
SOLOMON: His rival.
SIEGEL: Well, Deborah Solomon, thank you very much.
SOLOMON: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: Deborah Solomon's book is "American Mirror: The Life And Art of Norman Rockwell."
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